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Watch out for these 13 riders as cobbles season goes full-speed on Friday

BOULDER, Colorado (VN) — With the early-March stage races Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico in the rearview mirror, as well as the first of the spring classics, Milano-Sanremo, the heart of the Belgian racing calendar, the cobbled classics, is now upon us. And with the most frenetic block of racing on the calendar opening this week, 13 men stand out as the protagonists — and antagonists — to watch.

Ten days of racing will take place on the cobbled roads of Belgium and northern France over the 19 days that span Wednesday’s 200-kilometer Dwars door Vlaanderen, won by Oscar Gatto (Vini Fantini-Selle Italia), and Paris-Roubaix, held April 7.

The most prestigious events, of course, are two of the sport’s five one-day monuments — the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), on March 31, and Paris-Roubaix, one week later.

Both races exceed 250km (155 miles) in distance, and given the rough surfaces, distance, and propensity for bad weather, both are considered among the most difficult one-day races in professional cycling.

With the exception of GP Scheldeprijs (Grand Prize of the Schelde), held in Antwerp, and Paris-Roubaix, held in northern France, the cobbled classics all unfold on the tightly packed hellingen and pavé of East Flanders, Belgium.

Several of the cobbled hellingen in East Flanders, such as Eikenberg, Steenbeekdries, Knokteberg, Oude Kwaremont, and Paterberg, are used in multiple races, ranging from Dwars door Vlaanderen, E3 Harelbeke, Driedaagse van De Panne (Three Days of De Panne), and the Tour of Flanders.

And while De Panne is a lower-tier stage race, used as preparation for some and as a proving ground for others, Harelbeke and Ghent-Wevelgem are both WorldTour races, though they carry fewer WorldTour points than Flanders and Roubaix.

And though Ghent-Wevelgem often finishes in a bunch sprint, only Scheldeprijs is considered a true sprinter’s race, with recent winners including Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano), Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp), and Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-Merida).

All in all, the cobbled classics make up a three-week period for the hardmen of the sport, those who can generate enormous power and withstand extreme punishment, riders such as Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard), Peter Sagan (Cannondale), Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing), and of course, Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma).

In 2012 Boonen had a career run at the cobbled classics, becoming the only rider to ever win Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders, and Paris-Roubaix in the same season. He won Harelbeke for a record-setting fifth time, and he tied the all-time records at the others, winning Ghent-Wevelgem for a third time, Flanders for a third time, and Roubaix for a fourth time. He also became the first rider to complete the Flanders-Roubaix double twice in his career, the first coming in 2005, the first time he’d won either race.

For several reasons, however, it’s unlikely that Boonen will come close to his amazing string of success from last year.

For starters, the Belgian rider’s season has gotten off to a shaky start, due to illness and injury, including a dangerous blood infection, that have sidelined his training and racing since December. Also, Boonen’s main classics rival, Cancellara, crashed out of Flanders last year and was unable to factor in the finale of either that race or Roubaix, where he has won twice, in 2006 and 2010. And lastly, Boonen and Cancellara will face several young new challengers on the cobbled terrain, including Sagan, Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing), and Ian Stannard and Geraint Thomas (Sky).

Over the following pages, we present a list of 13 riders to watch at this year’s cobbled classics, divided into four categories: proven winners, proven podium finishers, classics stars of the future, and pure sprinters. Each will have his chance in East Flanders shore up a cobbles reputation or ascend to the status of proven winner.

The 2013 cobbled classics

March 20: Dwars door Vlaanderen (Europe Tour, 1.HC), 201km
2012 winner: Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-Quick Step)
2013 winner: Oscar Gatto (Vini Fantini-Selle Italia)

March 22: E3 Harelbeke (WorldTour), 211km
2012 winner: Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step)

March 24: Ghent-Wevelgem (WorldTour), 235.5km
2012 winner: Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step)

March 26: Driedaagse van De Panne (Europe Tour, 2.HC), Middelkerke-Zottegem, 199.8km
March 27: Driedaagse van De Panne (Europe Tour, 2.HC), Oudenaarde-Koksijde, 208.9km
March 28: Driedaagse van De Panne (Europe Tour, 2.HC), De Panne-De Panne, 109.7km
March 28: Driedaagse van De Panne (Europe Tour, 2.HC), De Panne-Koksijde-De Panne ITT, 14.75km
2012 overall winner: Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step)

March 31: Ronde van Vlaanderen (WorldTour), 256km
2012 winner: Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step)

April 3: GP Scheldeprijs (Europe Tour, 1.HC), 204km
2012 winner: Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano)

April 7: Paris-Roubaix (WorldTour), 257.5km
2012 winner: Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step)

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